A general practitioner (‘family doctor’; ‘family practitioner’) is a doctor working in primary care, acting as the ﬁrst port of professional contact for most patients in the NHS. There are approximately 35,000 GPs in the UK and their services are accessed by registering with a GP practice – usually called a surgery or health centre. Patients should be able to see a GP within 48 hours, and practices have systems to try to ensure that urgent problems are dealt with immediately. GPs generally have few diagnostic or treatment facilities themselves, but can use local hospital diagnostic services (X-rays, blood analysis, etc.) and can refer or admit their patients to hospital, where they come under the supervision of a CONSULTANT. GPs can prescribe nearly all available medicines directly to their patients, so that they treat 90 per cent of illnesses without involving specialist or hospital services.
Most GPs work in groups of self-employed individuals, who contract their services to the local Primary Care Trust (PCT) – see below. Those in full partnership are called principals, but an increasing number now work as non-principals – that is, they are employees rather than partners in a practice. Alternatively, they might be salaried employees of a PCT. The average number of patients looked after by a full-time GP is 1,800 and the average duration of consultation about 10 minutes. GPs need to be able to deal with all common medical conditions and be able to recognise conditions that require specialist help, especially those requiring urgent action.
Until the new General Medical Services Contract was introduced in 2004, GPs had to take individual responsibility for providing ‘all necessary medical services’ at all times to their patient list. Now, practices rather than individuals share this responsibility. Moreover, the contract now applies only to the hours between
8.00 a.m. and 6.30 p.m., Mondays to Fridays; out-of-hours primary care has become the responsibility of PCTs. GPs still have an obligation to visit patients at home on weekdays in case of medical need, but home-visiting as a proportion of GP work has declined steadily since the NHS began. By contrast, the amount of time spent attending to preventive care and organisational issues has steadily increased. The 2004 contract for the ﬁrst time introduced payment for speciﬁc indicators of good clinical care in a limited range of conditions.
A telephone advice service, NHS Direct, was launched in 2000 to give an opportunity for patients to ‘consult’ a trained nurse who guides the caller on whether the symptoms indicate that self-care, a visit to a GP or a hospital Accident & Emergency department, or an ambulance callout is required. The aim of this service is to give the patient prompt advice and to reduce misuse of the skills of GPs, ambulance staﬀ and hospital facilities.
Training of GPs Training for NHS general practice after qualiﬁcation and registration as a doctor requires a minimum of two years’ post-registration work in hospital jobs covering a variety of areas, including PAEDIATRICS, OBSTETRICS, care of the elderly and PSYCHIATRY. This is followed by a year or more working as a ‘registrar’ in general practice. This ﬁnal year exposes registrars to life as a GP, where they start to look after their own patients, while still closely supervised by a GP who has him- or herself been trained in educational techniques. Successful completion of ‘summative assessment’ – regular assessments during training – qualiﬁes registrars to become GPs in their own right, and many newly qualiﬁed GPs also sit the membership exam set by the Royal College of General Practitioners (see APPENDIX 8: PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS).
A growing number of GP practices oﬀer educational attachments to medical students. These attachments provide experience of the range of medical and social problems commonly found in the community, while also oﬀering them allocated time to learn clinical skills away from the more specialist environment of the hospital.
In addition to teaching commitments, many GPs are also choosing to spend one or two sessions away from their practices each week, doing other kinds of work. Most will work in, for example, at least one of the following: a hospital specialist clinic; a hospice; occupational medicine (see under OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH, MEDICINE AND DISEASES); family-planning clinics; the police or prison services. Some also become involved in medical administration, representative medicopolitics or journalism. To help them keep up to date with advances and changes in medicine, GPs are required to produce personal-development plans that outline any educational activities they have completed or intend to pursue during the forthcoming year.
NHS GPs are allowed to see private patients, though this activity is not widespread (see PRIVATE HEALTH CARE).
Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) Groups of GPs (whether working alone, or in partnership with others) are now obliged by the NHS to link communally with a number of other GPs in the locality, to form Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). Most have a membership of about 30 GPs, working within a deﬁned geographical area, in addition to the community nurses and practice counsellors working in the same area; links are also made to local council social services so that health and social needs are addressed together. Some PCTs also run ambulance services.
One of the roles of PCTs is to develop primary-care services that are appropriate to the needs of the local population, while also occupying a powerful position to inﬂuence the scope and quality of secondary-care services. They are also designed to ensure equity of resources between diﬀerent GP surgeries, so that all patients living in the locality have access to a high quality and uniform standard of service.
One way in which this is beginning to happen is through the introduction of more overt CLINICAL GOVERNANCE. PCTs devise and help their member practices to conduct CLINICAL AUDIT programmes and also encourage them to participate in prescribing incentive schemes. In return, practices receive payment for this work, and the funds are used to improve the services they oﬀer their patients.